Randall G. Shelden

Zero Tolerance Run Amok

In recent years "law and order" politicians have stoked the fears of the public with their rhetoric about the new "menace" of teen "super-predators." Despite the fact that serious crime among juveniles has dropped in recent years, many politicians continue the "get tough" talk. "Zero tolerance" is one of the new mantras. Variations of the "zero tolerance" mentality within the schools and elsewhere have not only taken us back more than 100 years as far as juvenile justice policy is concerned, but it has, more importantly, "widened the net" of social control in that more and more minor offenses are now being processed formally by the police and the juvenile court.

Some examples: (1) a five-year prison sentence handed out to a 17-year-old Texas high school basketball player who "threw an elbow" to the head of an opposing player in a basketball player; (2) two six-year-old children were suspended for three days for playing "cops and robbers" with their fingers (pretending their fingers were guns and going "bang, bang" toward other children); (3) a girl who gave a friend a Nuprin was suspended for "dealing drugs"; (4) some high school baseball players were suspended for possessing "dangerous weapons" on school grounds - a teacher who suspected them of having drugs found none, but instead found some baseball bats in their cars; (5) a 14-year-old boy was charged by school police with a felony for  "throwing a deadly missile" which turned out to be a Halloween  "trick or treat" of throwing an egg. He was taken away in handcuffs and put in juvenile detention; (6) in Florida, a 6-year-old was charged with trespassing when he took a shortcut through the schoolyard on his way home (how many of us did that as a kid?); (7) in Indianola, Mississippi elementary school children have been arrested for talking during assemblies; (8) in Spokane, Washington, three boys were suspended for bringing 2-inch-long "action figure toy guns" to school; (9) a 13-year-old girl in Massachusetts was expelled for having an empty lipstick tube in her purse – this was considered a "potential weapon"; (10) in Texas a "model student" was expelled when officials found a blunt-tipped bread knife in the back of his pickup, left there by his grandmother.

Among the most recent incidents comes from Toledo, Ohio where school officials have engaged in perhaps the most absurd forms of zero tolerance. According to a New York Times story (Jan. 4), on October 17 a 14-year-old girl was handcuffed by the police and hauled off to the local juvenile court. Her "crime" was the clothes she was wearing: " a low-cut midriff top under an unbuttoned sweater," which was a "clear violation of the dress code." The school offered to have her wear a bowling shirt, but she refused. Her mother came in and gave her an oversize T-shirt, which the girl also refused to wear, saying that it "was real ugly." According to the story, the girl is one of the more than two dozen arrested in school this past October for such "crimes" as "loud and disruptive," "cursing at school officials," and "shouting at classmates" and, of course, violating the dress code. Such "crimes" are violations of the city's "safe school ordinance."

In schools all over the country there has been a swelling of arrests by school police, mostly on minor charges, typically appearing within the  "miscellaneous" category, after serious assaults, property crimes and drugs have been totaled in annual reports. One study found that between 1999 and 2001 there was a 300% increase in student arrests in the Miami-Dade public school system. Where I live, the school district police have reported increasing arrests for "crimes" placed in this miscellaneous category, going from about 80% of the total to more than 90% in the past ten years. Such draconian measures have been put in place despite the fact that schools are the safest places for children and serious crime on school grounds had been declining long before such policies went into effect.

Schools have often been described as "day prisons" as they often have had that drab look of a prison and plenty of fences all around. These days it has become even worse, as a growing number of reports have noted. One recent report noted that many high school students are complaining that we are "making schools like prisons." This perceptive account further notes that: "Most U.S. high school students will have to walk by numerous hidden cameras, outdoors and indoors, and go through an institutional-size metal detector manned by guards just to get into school each morning. Once there, students are subject to random searches of their bodies and belongings. Lockers can be searched without warning with or without the student present, and in many places police will use drug-sniffing dogs during raids where they search lockers and even students’ parked cars."

A law suit filed in June, 2001 by the ACLU addressed some of these concerns at Locke High School in Los Angeles. Among the complaints were unreasonable searches, where students were frisked and spread-eagled and had their personal belongings examined in front of their peers. One of the plaintiffs in the case said "The searches are embarrassing. They' re treating us like we' re criminals. It' s turning school into a prison." A former student told a reporter that "There are 27 cameras on the second floor alone and they are going to put up more cameras to supposedly make it a safer place, when really you feel more like a criminal." At Oswego High School in up-state New York, one such search was done without warning when several police squads with their drug-sniffing dogs searched students’ lockers upon the request of the principal. They found a small amount of pot and a marijuana pipe in one student's pocket.

Perhaps the most infamous case occurred in a small town called Goose Creek, South Carolina. Videotape from surveillance cameras shows dozens of students, some of them handcuffed, sitting on a hallway floor against the walls as police officers watch them with guns drawn and police dogs sniff backpacks and bags strewn across the hall. A report in the Los Angeles Times noted that parents were outraged over the incident, saying that the police went overboard. No drugs were found. The author saw portions of the videotape and it looked like the Gestapo with about 10 or 12 armed police roaming the halls yelling and making the students lie down on the floor.

Contrary to the media and most politicians, the most serious juvenile offenders - the so-called "chronic violent predator" or "super-predator" - are rare. All across the nation, we search in vain for these kinds of youths and discover that they usually constitute less than 3% of all juvenile offenders (but they dominate the headlines, making us think they are the norm). Upon the passage of various "get tough" laws, officials look in vain to find the "super-predators" and, finding few, end up targeting minor offenders. I call it the "trickle-down" effect.

Juvenile court statistics illustrate some of these trends. During the decade of the 1990s, referrals to juvenile court for serious crimes like robbery, aggravated assault, rape and homicide went down by more than 25%, while referrals for the category of "simple assault" went up by 128% (mostly fighting on school grounds or during domestic disturbances). While the most serious property crimes (e.g., burglary and motor vehicle theft) went down, drug offenses (mostly possession of pot) went up by 148%, while "obstruction of justice" and "disorderly conduct" both jumped up by 100%.

Sometimes we are told that a certain percentage of youths referred to juvenile court are charged with "crimes against the person" or "violent crimes" when in fact the majority of these crimes are rather minor in nature - a fist fight, a fight between children and their parents, between siblings, a mere threat, etc. In short, the kinds of personal confrontations that people of my generation used to get involved in all the time when we were young. What happened? The communities handled it - the schools, neighbors, community groups, and even the kids themselves. Even the police - like those where I grew up - handled these infractions through a stern lecture and a warning (chances are they knew you and/or your parents). How many adults recall being taken to juvenile court in handcuffs for wearing the wrong clothes or disrupting class?

Juvenile courts everywhere have become overworked with the huge caseloads of such minor offenses and many court officials have been complaining. In Toledo, the administrative judge for the Lucas County Juvenile Court said that we are "demonizing children," noting that in his court during the year 2002 there were 1,727 school-related cases, up from 1,237 in 2000 (a 40% increase). No doubt such cases increased again in 2003. The Toledo juvenile court's intake officer said that only about 2% of all school-related cases are serious incidents like students assaulting teachers. Similar complaints are heard all over the country. Marsha Levick, legal director for the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia, put the problem succinctly: "The culture has shifted. Juvenile court is seen as an antidote for all sorts of behavior that in the past resulted in time out or suspension."

A critical factor in this recent trend is race. The majority of students charged with school-related offenses and ending up in juvenile court are minorities (in Toledo, 65% of the violators of the "safe school ordinance" have been minorities). This is nothing new, as it has become very clear that racism permeates the entire juvenile justice system, as recent juvenile court statistics reveal (e.g., blacks are far more likely to be detained and committed to a juvenile institution and are far more likely to be certified as an adult).

Racism is one aspect of this growing phenomenon. Another factor is the changing economic picture in American society, with increasing job losses, growing inequality, and more poverty, all of which place tremendous strains on people, with the inevitable strains on public services, including the juvenile court.

Sociologist Henry Giroux recently observed that there has been growing support in this country for the abandonment of young people, especially minorities, "to the dictates of a repressive penal state that increasingly addresses social problems through the police, courts, and prison system." This has been accomplished while the state has been increasingly reduced to providing police functions, at the expense of the role of serving as the "guardian of public interests." The policies of social investment, continues Giroux, "have given way to an emphasis on repression, surveillance, and control." One result is what he calls the "criminalization of social policy" or, perhaps more correctly, "domestic warfare."

A specific instance of this can be seen in New York City where, says Giroux, Rudi Giuliani essentially assigned the role of discipline within the schools to the police department. In effect, the school principal has assumed the role of "warden" while many schools have added a new function: a "feeder system for the penal system" (Giroux, quoting Jesse Jackson).

The war on terror and the war on Iraq, along with the expansion of American military might all over the globe, which is little more than another form of empire building and imperialism, is being matched by a growing crime control industry on the home front. Zero tolerance can be seen, therefore, as part of something much larger. My fear is that instituting anything remotely like radical nonintervention will be an uphill battle, given the current political climate. A "hands-off" policy toward youth does not fit in well these days, given the almost paranoid need to identify "troublemakers," "superpredators," and potential "terrorists."